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E-smoke, tobacco bills on the move

A smoker savors the vapor from an electronic cigarette, which is the focus of new legislation. (Photo:MisiArt, Shutterstock)

Hang on to your hats, California smokers — a cyclone of tobacco legislation is blowing through the Golden State.

Moves to crack down on electronic cigarettes, further regulate smokes in the workplace, raise the legal age to buy cigarettes to 21 years old and create new tobacco taxes all won support from the Senate health committee, the bills’ first major policy hurdle in the final weeks of the 2015 legislative session.

The move to regulate electronic cigarettes a got the backing of the key Senate committee Wednesday, despite opposition from users and marketers.

The legislation by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would set up statewide rules for e-cigarettes similar to those governing tobacco cigarettes, including that they be labeled accurately and that they not be marketed to children.

The measures are part of a special session called by Gov. Brown to find ways to come up with more money for Medi-Cal, the state’s health insurance program for the needy.

A separate measure, not yet in print, to impose a $2-per-pack tax hike on cigarettes, also was in the works, with proponents saying they hope to go through the Legislature but let open the possibility of going to the ballot.

“Our preference is to get this done through the Legislature, but we are confident that the people of California will see the wisdom of keeping kids from a lifetime of addiction,” said Mike Roth, a spokesman for the coalition Save Lives California.

The move to regulate electronic cigarettes a got the backing of the key Senate committee Wednesday, despite opposition from users, marketers and others who said the vapor-producing devices helped people kick the smoking habit.

The $2 tax increase is backed by Save Lives California, a coalition made up of prominent public health organizations including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association.

In initial vote, the Senate Health Committee approved Leno’s bill, SB 5X2, but delayed announcing the final vote to allow absent members to add to the roll. The measure’s passage appeared all but certain. The bill’s next stop was the Senate Appropriations Committee, where scores of bills awaited action.

Leno said his bill would establish statewide regulations similar to those that already exist in many of California’s cities, including Los Angeles. “About half the population of California live under these regulations already,” Leno told the committee.

Backers of e-cigarettes said the vapor was far less harmful to users than nicotine, and that any nicotine content could be gradually ratcheted down to wean the e-smoke user from tobacco.

“It’s a very controlled process and a lot consumers … are requesting zero nicotine,” said Michael Mullins, the owner of Digital Ciggz and head of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association.
Most e-cigarettes, he added, do not contain any nicotine. About 40,000 people die annually in California from smoking-related disease, he said, and e-cigarettes give smokers an option to nicotine.

But Leno said tests at UC San Francisco disclosed the presence of nicotine in e-cigarettes, and that regulations were needed to protect consumers. “They can put anything on their label. There is no oversight,” Leno said. “Right now, it is unregulated.”

Current state law, two decades old, bars smoking on the job, in restaurants and taverns, among other places. Leno’s bill would include e-cigarette’s in those rules. The co-sponsors of the legislation include the American Lung Association.

The coalition has also set up a ballot initiative for the tax increase in case the legislature fails to institute said tax, and will begin collecting signatures if this occurs.

The other bills were:
SMOKING IN THE WORKPLACE – Would repeal exemptions in smoke-free workplace laws, prohibiting smoking in certain loophole environments such as covered parking lots, gaming clubs, bars, and tobacco shops. Would reduce the number of rooms in hotels and motels in which smoking is permitted from 65 percent to 20 percent. (SBX2 6 by Senator Bill Monning, D-Carmel.)

MINIMUM LEGAL AGE – Would increase the minimum legal age to purchase and consume tobacco products from 18 to 21. Hernandez withdrew a similar bill from an Assembly hearing in early July because of interference from “Big Tobacco,” as the “Sacramento Bee” reported. (SBX2 7 by Senator Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina.)

TOBACCO USE PROGRAMS – Would extend funding eligibility for tobacco education programs in school districts and county offices of education to include charter schools. (SBX2 8 by Senator Carol Liu (D-La La Cañada Flintridge.)

LOCAL TAXES – Would authorize counties to impose a tax on the distribution of cigarettes and other “tobacco products,” via a board of supervisors. (SBX2 9 by Senator Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.)

PRODUCT LICENSING – Would establish an annual Board of Equalization tobacco licensing fee program. Would increase the license fee on cigarette and tobacco retailers from $100 to $265, and the license fee on cigarette and tobacco distributors from $1,000 to $1,200. An estimated $12 million would be raised by the new fees. (SBX2 10 by Senator Jim Beall, D-San Jose.)

When reached for a statement, David Sutton, a spokesman for tobacco giant Altria Inc., declined to comment on the bills.

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), is crafting a bill to increase cigarette taxes by $2 per pack. Pan’s office confirms said the bill will be unveiled during the remaining weeks of the session, which ends in mid-September.

The $2 tax increase is backed by Save Lives California, a coalition made up of prominent public health organizations including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association.

“California used to be a leader in tobacco control, and unfortunately we have slipped,” said Tim Gibbs, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society in California. “California hasn’t raised its tobacco tax since 1998. We have fallen to 35th in the nation in terms of tobacco taxes,” currently at $0.87 per pack.

The coalition has also set up a ballot initiative for the tax increase in case the legislature fails to institute said tax, and will begin collecting signatures if this occurs.

“Polls show widespread support for higher cigarette taxes, even from those who traditionally are against higher taxes. The people of California understand that keeping kids from starting a deadly habit is a top priority,” Roth said.

Projected at $1.1 billion to $1.4 billion annually, the revenues from the tax increase would help support state healthcare and smoking prevention entities. Some notable recipients include the Department of Health Care Services to pay for Medi-Cal, the Department of Education to pay for school programs for tobacco education, and the University of California to support physician training and its Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program.

 


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